Virtual Dolphin on a Mission

VDolOn a Monday morning in downtown Baltimore, in a second-floor lab at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, a bottlenose dolphin named Bandit is having the time of his life.

He’s rolling playfully in the water. He’s munching fish with a satisfied crunch. He’s breaching the surface once he’s fortified, leaping and twirling in the air with acrobatic power and grace. And when he plunges back into the cerulean water, he chirps and whistles and clicks, then looks for more fish.

Could this be the smiling new face of conservation?

Bandit is a physical simulation. His remarkably lifelike movements, from the twitch of his tail to the depths of his dives, are happening on a monitor. They’re being controlled by a computer scientist named Omar Ahmad, first with a mouse, then with a robot arm, and finally, on a touch-screen tablet, with a finger swipe. Learning to “think” like Bandit and move him properly—like a real dolphin thinks and moves—is tricky, but Ahmad is a practiced hand.

Later this summer, in a series of clinical trials, post-stroke patients will get a chance to “be” Bandit themselves. If the immersive, dynamic experience helps them recover lost motor function faster than the repetitive exercises of conventional treatment, it could signal a paradigm shift in rehabilitative therapy.

Bandit’s back story is just as novel. The virtual dolphin is the result of an unlikely consortium—of scientists and animators, software engineers and animal-intelligence experts—finding common cause in the science of movement.

Perhaps most surprising of all, Bandit may soon point the way forward on another front far removed from medicine: wildlife conservation.

How It All Began

“We met and started talking, and it was love at first sight,” says John W. Krakauer.

The Johns Hopkins professor of neuroscience and neurology is describing the fateful spring day in 2011 when he met Ahmad and the other future members of the Kata Project (“kata” is a Japanese term for practiced movement).

“I’d been wondering for a long time: Where does the cognitive stop and the motor begin?” says Krakauer, who co-founded Kata with Ahmad and directs the Hopkins neurology department’s Brain, Learning, Animation, and Movement (BLAM) lab. In reality, “they’re inseparable: Movement is cognition. And by studying movement and what it does to people—why they love it, why they’re devastated when they lose it—we can learn so much more about the brain. So I realized we needed new tasks to tackle this fundamental insight.”

Krakauer decided that video games were the best way to study the various motor tasks “that had everything we all love about movement.” But the games he’d seen were lacking a crucial feature: They didn’t require the person playing to directly control a character onscreen and, using the player’s own cognitive intention, make it move in a realistic way.

So Krakauer began looking for forward-thinking gamer-scientists to work with. His search led him to Hopkins’s Homewood campus and Ahmad, who had recently collaborated with 3-D sound engineer Jeff Anderson on a simulated game. Though Ahmad calls it “terrible” today, the game featured a highly realistic bird modeled, uniquely, on biomechanics—a marked contrast to the artificial-looking characters in most other games.

In fact, the bird was so realistic that when it died during the course of the game, angry letters poured in from people who’d played it. That’s when Ahmad knew he was on the cusp of something big.

“I used to work with Disney,” he says, “and one of the things animators there are concerned with is how you make a character realistic. Why are Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck real to a child? The answer is what we call emotional reality, which is determined by ‘squash and stretch’—the elasticity of a character’s movement. And that’s what I was trying to apply to games.”

When video gaming exploded commercially in the late 1990s, he says, people thought that the latest technology would deepen the sense of emotional reality.

“But the reverse happened,” says Ahmad. “When you play games today, there’s still a sense that the characters aren’t alive—that the physics of them aren’t real. That’s because most two- and three-dimensional animation is basically just an expensive, stitched-together flipbook. And the mind picks up on that artificiality. The ‘illusion of life,’ as we call it, is destroyed.”

To try to preserve the illusion in his next game, Ahmad enlisted Promit Roy, a software engineer, and Kat McNally, an animator and illustrator with a rare knack for swiftly translating scientific concepts into visual forms.

When Krakauer met Ahmad and his team, he realized their prototypes were also addressing cognition and motor control, albeit from a different angle.

“When I saw what they were doing, it led to a eureka moment about what we could do together,” he says. “Especially if we shifted the focus from interacting with the animal to actually controlling it,” which would spark the highest mental action.

When they made that shift, says Ahmad, “the light bulb turned on. Promit built a very powerful physics engine that let us go light-years beyond that original bird.”

Building a Better Dolphin

Once the multidisciplinary team was in place, the members—augmented by robotics specialist Kevin Olds—started looking for the perfect animal to base their work on.

“I chose a dolphin,” says Ahmad, “because of the simple intention in its beautiful, complex movements. Dolphins do an incredible amount of real-time computation—calculating their lift, their drag, the friction and hydrodynamics of the water—that they’re not conscious of. And the acrobatics of their jump, which they trigger with a flick of their head, is just the coolest thing.

“Of course, all of that breaks down if you produce a virtual animal that’s not endearing too. So we found the perfect artist in Kat. She has an innate ability to put that quality into shapes.”

As Roy explains, “Most movies and games today are done using expensive motion-capture technology. But the characters they wind up with are always kind of creepy looking. So we don’t directly capture numerical data and try to match that to what we’re doing. We take tons of video and make sketches, then internalize—aesthetically and artistically—how the creature moves. We’re trying to re-create it with an artistic eye rather than a mathematical algorithm.”

To bring out what Krakauer calls “the idealized, essential ‘dolphin-ness’ of a dolphin’s movement,” Roy says that “you have to exaggerate and accentuate certain things about how it moves. If you replicate exactly what it does in the real world, it feels weird in a digital world.”

As the team began to spend hours analyzing dolphin movements, Ahmad realized something was still missing. To design a virtual animal “with true emotional reality,” they’d need to truly understand its emotions.

So he began reading a book called The Dolphin in the Mirror: Exploring Dolphin Minds and Saving Dolphin Lives. And he soon learned that its author, Hunter College psychology professor Diana Reiss (also a National Geographic grantee and explorer-in-residence), was an expert on animal cognition and communication—and, as luck would have it, a good friend of Krakauer’s. Reiss soon signed on to Kata as a consultant.

“People have been mesmerized by the movements of dolphins since the time of the ancient Greeks,” she says. “They’re so synchronous with each other. And watching them you feel in synchrony with them, because we live vicariously by watching skilled movement.”

Reiss in turn introduced the Kata team to Sue Hunter, director of animal programs at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

“After we met Sue, this whole thing really took off in terms of our study of the animal,” says Ahmad. “Her insights were so important in guiding how we viewed the dolphins and their emotional nature. And watching her and the other trainers was really important to see [that interspecies] bonding.”

Hunter also granted Ahmad and McNally virtually unlimited access to a viewing area between the aquarium’s three dolphin tanks. That gave them a good look at the three dolphins that would serve as the composite model for Bandit.

Connection, Compassion … Conservation?

From Greek and Hindu myths to heraldic symbols, from Flipper to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, dolphins are famously intelligent, charismatic, and photogenic. Yet 20,000-plus are legally slaughtered each year in Japanese waters. And many thousands more perish annually after becoming entangled in fishing nets.

As the debate over keeping dolphins and whales in captivity has heated up, the National Aquarium has phased out its dolphin shows and put an indefinite moratorium on breeding programs. Last month the aquarium’s CEO, John Racanelli, said the current colony of eight may eventually be retired to the first ever (still theoretical) seaside sanctuary. (See: “Q&A: National Aquarium CEO Discusses Dolphin’s Retirement.”)

On a June afternoon at the aquarium, in the Dolphin Discovery exhibit—where visitors can watch the animals, which thrive on continual stimulation, playing with “enrichment” toys like hula hoops, soccer balls, and footballs—two young male dolphins are cavorting in a 24-foot-deep pool.

Beau is eight years old, Foster is five. As they train and play—leaping ballistically out of the water, chasing each other around the pool, slapping the surface with their tails, gulping down fish tossed by trainers, cheekily splashing the spectators they see lingering closest to the glass—they look for all the world like Bandit in his virtual sea.

That’s because McNally based her sketches and animations on this pair, along with a five-year-old female named Bayley. And Anderson designed the game’s binaural audio (recording with two microphones to produce 3-D sound) using recordings of their above-water and underwater sounds.

That audio-visual verisimilitude is important for more than just a realistic gaming experience. It may be the key to inspiring empathy and compassion—and, by extension, conservation.

After “being” Bandit in the game, a player can’t help but gain a new appreciation of the species—including how hard it is to be a dolphin. Ahmad has experienced it himself.

“I spent hundreds of hours looking at these animals,” he said. “Then I’d go to the lab and, with the game, try to control every subtlety—try to re-create it. When I would come back to the aquarium, the actual animal took on a whole different reality.

“Now I understand what I have to be aware of for Bandit to kick his tail in a certain way. The jump in the game is hard to do well at first. But you soon realize you have to time it properly. And you have a motor connection to the animal, which you get to know so well through the course of the game. At the same time, you begin to understand that Bandit has a personality, just like real dolphins do.”

To that end, Krakauer sees the game as a sort of stealth campaign for conservation.

“If you fool people into falling in love with animals for implicit reasons,” he says, “then you start finding out what you can do to protect [the animals]. For too long we’ve put the cart before the horse. People don’t need facts and data first. They need the things they love. And that’s movement—everyone loves to see something move beautifully, like a dolphin does in the water.

“We think this is the way to get kids in Japan to vote on [conservation issues]. Do you think they’re going to countenance their grandparents slaughtering all these animals [after they play the game]? Or fishing the whales to extinction? If this game can instill in them a sympathy and an empathy, it will make it hard for them to be clueless.”

In other words, as Aristotle once said, “To perceive is to suffer.” Of course, the philosopher also said, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

The Kata crew seems to have taken that to heart.

“This game is a way of linking people to dolphins,” says Reiss, “of learning about them and building empathy. It puts you in the context of their environment. That’s what’s critical here—you’re entering their world and feeling what it’s like to be a dolphin. And you don’t just feel like you’re controlling the dolphin. You become it.”

The hope is that virtual empathy will, in time, lead to widespread real-world protection.

“Dolphins are a keystone species,” says Reiss. “A conservation goal here at the aquarium is to protect these animals and their environment. But dolphins are still getting hammered in the wild, whether by nets or hunts. We need to have global protection for this species. It’s a big goal, but this is a great first step.”

Time will tell whether people who play the game agree. Kata’s first purpose in designing it was for use as a medical therapeutic tool—an application that Krakauer hopes will eventually fund itself. But later this summer Max & Haley, Ahmad and Co.’s commercial arm, will publicly release the game as an app for iPads and iPhones. The rollout is important, says Ahmad, because so much is riding on it.

“We want to make games that I’d give my own son to play,” he says. “The hyper-violence that’s in some of these games—we absolutely have to move away from that. But to do that we have to offer an experience that’s more compelling. We’re not against action. Nature is violent. But it has to be in a certain context.

“Aligning this game with conservation could have a very positive cultural impact, which is what we’re trying to do. This could be a lot bigger than just a video game being released. It could be a new way of understanding these majestic creatures. And that’s really what this game is all about—building a bridge between our world and theirs.”

Source: National Geographic

Try your own virtual dolphin for free – just click here.

The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins


The discreet title of Tuesday night’s groundbreaking documentary The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins (BBC Four) spoke volumes about the programme.

 

How narrowly did the film avoid being called something like “The Girl Paid by NASA to have Sex with a Dolphin”? Or “The Mad Scientist Who Gave Dolphins LSD”?

 

Dealing with the indisputably bizarre experiments that took place in the mid-Sixties in a Carribbean research facility known as Dolphin Point Laboratory, it has been standard practice for reporting to take the raciest possible line. Who, after all, can resist a cocktail as sensational as sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ dolphins?

 

Yet the anti-sensationalist approach of Christopher Riley’s superb documentary was its trump card, securing – for the first time ever – interviews with the main protagonists from Dolphin Point. The story he laid out with fresh material was moving and complex: a tale of Sixties idealism gone sour.

 

Dolphin Point was the brainchild of a maverick scientist, Dr John Lilly, who noticed that the dolphins he was studying tried to mimic the sound of his voice. Armed with the thesis that dolphins could be taught to speak English, he persuaded NASA to fund him – if a terrestrial species could learn human speech, he argued, there were clear implications for extraterrestrials.

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A futuristic white structure (now symbolically in ruins) was built out from the island’s shore onto the Carribean Sea; inside, the rooms were flooded so that Peter, the chosen dolphin, could live in immersive isolation with his language tutor, a young and gifted college dropout named Margaret Howe.

Painstaking months were devoted to his lessons: she painted her face white and her lips black so that he could better see the movements of her mouth; at night, he slept in the water beside her suspended bed in the flooded house.

Even had a sexual element not emerged, the mutual devotedness of Margaret and the dolphin would count as one of history’s most curious romances. An unlikely domestic bliss, with Peter cooing in response to her gentle chatting, emerges from the wealth of original sound recordings used in the documentary and laid over photographs or reconstructed footage.The team’s veterinarian immediately noticed: “This dolphin was, well, madly in love with her.”

Yet Peter began to court Margaret more aggressively. At first, she defrayed the tension by sending him out to the wider facility to swim with the other dolphins; later, however, his advances became so frequent that, for convenience’s sake, she decided to administer relief herself. In her words: “It was sexual on his part but not on mine; sensuous, perhaps.”

READ: The woman who lived in sin with a dolphin

Since these details – trivial, in Margaret’s bemused view – broke in Hustler Magazine a decade after the experiment was shut down, the ensuing scandal overtook any sense of what the experiment aimed to achieve. At the time, however, what had brought down Dolphin Point was not sex but drugs.

Dr Lilly had become immersed in LSD, his self-administered experiments shading into a permanently hippyish mode of life. Desperate that NASA should maintain funding (their test dolphin had made progress with English mimicry but NASA’s visiting astronomer was insufficiently impressed), Lilly injected his other dolphins with 2cc of LSD in the hope that it would open their minds to the human world around them. It didn’t; but his research team, once drawn by his charisma, now deserted his narcotic eccentricities.

Margaret was parted from Peter. “Well, we couldn’t elope into the sea, could we?” Peter, sent to a more squalid facility in Miami – a tank that was cramped, malodorous, lightless and, above all, loveless – voluntarily quit breathing one year later. In anthropomorphic terms, he committed suicide.

Among the many insights of this exquisite, intelligent film is how perfectly “of its time” Dolphin Point was: its gleaming white lines; its daring methods; its otherworldly ambitions; the LSD-fuelled downfall.

This point, underlined by an optimistic Sixties soundtrack, was driven home when a shining-eyed Margaret was played the 50-year-old recordings of her lessons: “Nice vibe, Peter,” she is telling him. Kazoo-like, he tries to squeak it back: “Nice vibe.” A very dated talking dolphin.

READ: Friendly dolphins photographed around Britain and Ireland by Terry Whittaker

Source: The Telegraph

 

Brazil’s last-ditch effort to save ‘magical’ pink dolphins


 

 

Brazil wants to stop fishermen from catching a certain type of catfish for the next five years. But the move isn’t meant to protect the fish.

The country’s Fishing and Aquaculture Ministry announced Tuesday it plans to place a ban on catching the piracatinga species in an effort to stop the killing of the Amazon pink dolphin, whose flesh is often used as bait for the catfish.

Nature World News reports a ministry spokesperson said the government is still working out the finer details of the ban. But it will reportedly go into effect sometime next year, which will give officials time to find an alternative bait for the catfish.

As a writer for One Green Planet explains, many fishermen in Brazil slaughter pink dolphins, also known as river dolphins, because the piracatinga is a carnivorous fish that’s attracted in large numbers to dead animal carcasses in the water. This gruesome method has become a popular way to catch them by the dozen.

But surprisingly, the fish isn’t even popular in Brazil — most of what’s caught is exported on the international market, with Columbia being one of the biggest buyers.

The Wire reports fisherman in the Amazon kill about 1,500 pink dolphins every year — even though many locals believe the creatures have some mystical powers.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, there are several well-known myths about the pink dolphin. Some believe — once the sun goes down — the dolphins magically change into handsome men all dressed in white who venture out on land to seduce the women of local villages.

Other myths say you should never look a pink dolphin in the eye, unless you want to have terrifying nightmares for the rest of your life. And some even claim killing one is bad luck. (Via Animal Planet)

Brazil’s Fishing and Aquaculture Ministry says it hopes the five-year ban on piracatinga fishing will give the pink dolphins enough time to rebuild their population.

Source: ajc.com

How to surf – dolphin style

Irish farmer rescues dolphin

FarmerLocal farmer Martin Costello came to the rescue of a young dolphin recently stranded in an inlet near Maree in Ireland.

 

Alerted by local naturalist, Martin Byrne, Costello waded into the shallow water and carried the dolphin to the entrance of the inlet where he placed it in clear water.

 

The inlet at Ballinacourty, which drains completely of seawater at low tides, has caused the death of dolphins in the past. However MrCostello was able to save the dolphin in time, and was delighted to report watching the dolphin swim away, and after circling several times, was seen jumping from the water.

 

Simon Berrow of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group commented: “This is excellent news. Mr Costello did the right thing. If the dolphin had been left where it was it would certainly have died. Swift action is very important, as stranded dolphins do not survive.”

Source: Galway Advertiser

Japanese tourism operators to promote whale and dolphin watching as alternative to whaling

Japan whale watching.jpg Tourism operators in Japan have launched an initiative to promote whale and dolphin watching in the waters off the country’s many islands.

With figures showing the industry is growing at six per cent a year, the Japan Whale and Dolphin Watching Council held its first meeting in Tokyo this week.

Tourism operators in Japan have launched an initiative to promote whale and dolphin watching in the waters off the country’s many islands.

With figures showing the industry is growing at six per cent a year, the Japan Whale and Dolphin Watching Council held its first meeting in Tokyo this week.

There are now more than 200 operators in the whale and dolphin watching industry which campaigners say offers a positive alternative to the slaughter of the mammals.

They say the industry is burgeoning and with it, the promise of bringing much-needed cash to coastal communities.

One of the organisations taking part in this week’s meeting in Tokyo is the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Marine campaigns manager Matthew Collis says tourism based on whale and dolphin watching is a positive alternative to whaling for coastal communities.

Mr Collis says the industry is homegrown with Japanese making up the majority of people on watching tours.

“That’s why the tourism operators themselves have come together because they realise the value of that and the importance of that within Japan itself,” he said.

“I think it’s demonstrating that there’s a new generation in Japan that doesn’t look at whales as food but looks at them as living, breathing magnificent creatures that they are and that are far more fun to shoot with a camera than with a harpoon.”

The keynote speaker at the launch, Erich Hoyt, a senior research fellow with the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation, says Japan’s national effort to promote whale and dolphin watching gives the operators the possibility of marketing internationally.

He says while the industry is very much homegrown, there is big potential to attract business from other parts of Asia and North America.

Full story: Australia Network News

Jelly tot: Young dolphin flips jellyfish

Scottish Highlands-based photographer Peter Jolly has captured images of a juvenile bottlenose dolphin playing with a jellyfish in the Moray Firth.

The photographs show the youngster flicking the creature into the air with its nose.

The Moray Firth and North Sea provides habitat for the world’s most northerly resident population of bottlenose dolphins.

Research published in 2012 suggested the population was “stable” with almost 200 animals. The species is protected by European Union rules.

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Young dolphin playing with jellyfish

Source: BBC

Orcas following speed boat for fun

Redescription of the oldest-known dolphin skull sheds light on their origins and evolution

This is the skull of the holotype of Eodelphis in lateral view.
Credit: Image courtesy Mizuki Murakami

Dolphins are the most diverse family of living marine mammals and include species such as the bottlenose dolphin and the killer whale. However, their early evolution and fossil record has been steeped in mystery due to lack of good specimens. A new paper published in latest issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology re-describes the oldest species of dolphin with a new name: Eodelphis kabatensis. Although the partial skull was previously described in the 1970s the scientific community largely overlooked it. The new re-description has important implications for the evolutionary history of dolphins.

The skull of Eodelphis kabatensis was originally collected from a small tributary of the Oshirarika River in Hakkaido, Japan from an outcrop of the Mashike Formation. Researchers working on the specimen have narrowed its age to the late Miocene (13.0-8.5 million years ago), making it the earliest true dolphin species described. “The early evolution of true dolphins is still covered in mystery. Eodelphis kabatensis informs us about the morphology of early dolphins,” said lead author Mizuki Murakami.

Eodelphis is an important link in the evolutionary history of dolphins. Prior to this study, there was inconsistency between the fossil record of the dolphins and molecular-based studies. The oldest true dolphin fossils found were less than 6 million years old, while molecular studies suggested they originated and started to diversity between 9-12 million years ago. “Eodelphis kabatensis, being discovered from sediments that were deposited 8-13 million years ago, has largely resolved this discrepancy and provides the best glimpse yet of what the skull of the first dolphins may have looked like,” said Jonathan Geisler, a marine mammal paleontologist at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine.

In addition to its importance as the earliest true dolphin, this new study also incorporates the most comprehensive analysis of the relationships within the Delphinoidea, the group that encompasses toothed whales. By including Eodelphis in the analysis, the authors were able to get a much clearer picture of the evolution of the toothed whales. Furthermore, the presence of Eodelphis in the Pacific Ocean during the late Miocene has implications for the geographic history of dolphins. While more specimens need to be discovered, this study suggests that dolphins might have had their origins in the Pacific.

Source: Science Daily

EU wants ban on driftnets to save dolphins, tuna

dolphin_in_netBRUSSELS — The European Union’s executive on Wednesday proposed to ban all use of driftnets in EU waters and on its vessels by year’s end to better enforce the protection of dolphins, sharks, swordfish and bluefin tuna.

Driftnets stretching for miles close to the surface have often been responsible for the incidental capture and killing of thousands of marine animals that are important to the ecosystem. They were also responsible for indiscriminate fishing that often resulted in huge by-caches with little commercial value.

Often they were called the “walls of death” since they trapped and killed anything within nets that could measure dozens of kilometers.

“Fishing with driftnets destroys marine habitats, endangers marine wildlife and threatens sustainable fisheries,” said EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki.

These type of nets were previously used in the hunt for endangered bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean until the EU banned such fishing in 2002. Even if laws already restricted its use, driftnet fishing often continued illegally and a total ban on driftnets would make catching cheats easier. The EU courts had to take action against Italy and France half a decade ago to stop such practices.

The proposal now goes to the EU’s 28 member states for approval.

“We need to close any possible loopholes and simplify control and enforcement,” said Damanaki. “The ban sends out a clear message that we no longer tolerate any irresponsible practices.”

Full story: Washington Post